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Classical Narrative Structure: Exposition, Climax, Resolution

by Jeremy Butler

Exposition

The exposition introduces the viewer to two components of the story:

1. the principal characters’ personas, their “personalities”;

2. the space or environment the characters inhabit.

Every story must have an exposition, but not necessarily at the beginning of the film. Many movies, especially murder mysteries, start in the middle of the action and then later explain who the characters are and what their space entails. Stories that open in such a fashion are said to begin in medias res. Raiders of the Lost Ark starts in medias res. The opening shot, beneath the credits, presents the hero as a mysterious silhouette. Shortly afterwards, he is nearly crushed by a huge rolling boulder, and is then pursued by angry natives. All of this occurs before we know who Indiana “Indy” Jones (Harrison Ford) is and why he is doing what he’s doing—although a title does tell us that it is “South America 1936.” Once Indy escapes from the jungle the film’s exposition begins. His profession and motivation are established when we see him lecturing about archeology; and the entire story (its characters and their locations) is mapped out by the government bureaucrats who visit Indy and pique his interest in the Ark of the Covenant.

 

Climax

At a classical film’s climax the narrative conflict culminates—necessitating a resolution. The film’s central enigma, which has been delayed for 90 minutes or more, demands to be solved. At the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the conflict between Indy and Belloq peaks as Indy and Marion are tied to a stake while Belloq and the Nazis open the Ark. The central enigma (Will Indy find the Ark and prevent the Nazis from using it?) and its subsidiary (What is in the Ark?) are solved in this scene: apparently the wrath of God is contained in the Ark and consequently the Nazis are destroyed when they open it. More specifically, Indy’s antagonist, Belloq, is obliterated—thus resolving their longstanding competition.

Climaxes are the most concentrated moment of the narrative conflict, but typically they are not the very end of the film. Classical films normally incorporate a short resolution to answer any outstanding questions.

 

Resolution/Denouement

Up to the point of the resolution, the enigmas have been consistently delayed and the narrative action has constantly risen. In the resolution, in contrast, the enigmas are solved and the narrative action (or conflict) declines. After the apocalyptic destruction of the Nazis, Raiders of the Lost Ark resolves its narrative by showing us Indy and Marion getting together for a drink and, in the very last shot, the Ark being stored in an anonymous crate in a huge warehouse. The questions about the Ark’s contents and the Nazis’ use of it are answered. The battle with Belloq is finished. Also answered is a subsidiary question about whether Indy and Marion will reunite. There is a strong sense of closure at the end of this and most classical films. The enigmas that had been opened at the start of the film are now closed off, secured. The narrative’s questions are answered.

If a narrative concludes without answering its questions and the ending is ambiguous or open, this is an instance of narrative aperture. For the most part, narrative aperture exists only in nonclassical films. Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (1962), for example, concludes with the protagonist being suddenly shot and killed, with no subsequent explanation. There are very few films that follow classical conventions up until the very end, and then tantalize us with an ambiguous finish. The horror genre contains most of these films. Halloween (1978), with the mysterious disappearance of the killer’s body, and Piranha (2010), with a main character being eaten by an adult piranha in the final shot, are two examples among many. There are, of course, economic reasons for the openness or aperture of horror films. An open ending facilitates the return of the killer in sequels. But aperture also suits the horror film’s raison d’être, which is to call into question the stability of rational life. An ambiguous ending undermines the narrative equilibrium that is the goal of most classical films. The horror film does not share that goal. 

 

Exposition in "Raiders"

The credit sequence of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" provides basic narrative exposition.

from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Creator: Steven Spielberg
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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